Tracey Emin, I didn’t say I couldn’t love you, 2011
I’ll start by owning up to the fact that I wouldn’t have gone to see She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, Tracey Emin’s exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, if there hadn’t been a couple of other things on show outside the gallery that I particularly wanted to see. Over the years, Emin has made quite a lot of work I really like but most of it has been video and, with a few exceptions, I’m not crazy about her drawings, prints and paintings. But I was there so it would have been foolhardy not to take a look. I’ve seen enough of Emin’s work to know that at its best it can be genuinely affecting and that sometimes even the small, almost throw-away, drawings can be funny and occasionally hit a nerve or tell some sort of universal truth.
Yonka Shonibare, Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 11.00 Hours, 1998
For Yinka Shonibare, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a starting point for an exploration of art history and the representation of black people rather than something to be reworked for a new time. And with a fascination with the Victorian era, Shonibare chose to change both the narrative and the period in which it’s set, creating a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy, made over a period of three days at a stately home in Herefordshire. And though Hogarth’s series is a clear inspiration, the story of Shonibare’s dandy is told in five scenes seemingly taking place in a 24 hour period and each titled with just the time of day. The dandy – played by the artist – rises late. He is attended by many servants; contrary to the narrative we see played out across the history of Western painting, it is the dandy who is black rather than one of the servants who seem to dote on him.
David Hockney, A Rake’s Progress, Plate No. 1 – The Arrival, 1961-63
If Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a morality tale for its time then it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a tale that’s been retold by others for different times and changed moral imperatives. Over time inevitably, things change. There are few – if any – moral absolutes. Interpretation is key. Produced over two centuries after Hogarth’s series, David Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress tells the familiar tale of inheritance leading to a dissolute life and, ultimately, the mad house in a series of 16 prints: twice as many as the original, but fewer than the 24 plates apparently originally suggested to Hockney. Started while Hockney was still studying at the Royal College of Art, the series was largely made in London but is set in New York, where Hockney spent the summer of 1961. The rake here is Hockney himself, though he is drawing on his own experiences and twisting them to broadly fit Hogarth’s narrative, so that rather than receiving an inheritance from his father, Hockney’s rake gets money from a collector, though he is beaten down from $20 to $18 for his print.
Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel at the Sepulchre, 1866
Given Madame Yevonde’s use of photography to retell classical myths in the mid 1930s, the relationship between storytelling and photography clearly goes way back. But though Madame Yevonde’s use of colour was unusual and though her images were genuinely different, even eighty years ago the ides of using photography to represent old narratives wasn’t a new one. In fact it’s essentially as old as photography itself.
Something about the colour and the relationship between portrait and object in Urs Fischer’s Problem Paintings reminded me about Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses, a series of portraits of society women posing as figures from classical mythology made in the 1930s using the short-lived Vivex colour system. I’ll be honest, I have no clear idea what the Vivex system was but quick google suggests it involved separate plate negatives for cyan, yellow and magenta – which means it can’t have been easy to work with, especially given exposure times of a few seconds – and that Madame Yevonde used some sort of automated camera back to expose the three plates in succession. All the faff was clearly worth it though as the results are stunning.
Yael Bartana, An Europe will be Stunned, exterior installation view, Polish Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011
Given the subject matter of identity and nationhood that lies at the heart of Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned and the way the trilogy explores the possibility of return and the dangers of nationalism and totalitarianism, the context in which I first came across the work – in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale – was a fascinating one. It is unusual but not unheard of for an artist who neither lives in nor comes from a country to be selected to represent it at Venice and this was the first time Poland had been represented by an artist who wasn’t a Polish national. And, of course, the history of the Venice Biennale along with the architecture of the national pavilions, the positioning of them within the Giardini and factors like when different countries built or acquired their pavilions offers an interesting, albeit inevitably incomplete, picture of the politics of Europe in particular. Add to this the fact that in 2009 Poland was represented by Krzysztof Wodiczko, who left Poland in 1977 and has been a Canadian citizen since 1984, with Guests, a work about migration and the status of immigrants who remain forever ‘guests’ in their new homes, and the Polish pavilion becomes a fascinating, and intensely loaded, location for Bartana’s installation.
I don’t go to see art expecting easy answers. I like work that makes me think. (I like work that just bowls me over visually too, but I’m going to assume that’s a given rather than getting bogged down by trying to make an exhaustive list of types of art I like. Let’s just work on the basis that I like art. And, for my purposes here, that thinking is a bonus and a bit of confusion is fine.) I’m not scared of challenging work and I don’t necessarily expect to get it straight away. I’m pretty tenacious; I’ll go back for a second look (if I can, my tendency to see exhibitions on the day they close can be something of a limitation in this respect) or read whatever background information I can find. All of which should be borne in mind when I say that I’ve seen Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned three times now and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think about it.
The work is made up of three connected films – Mary Koszmary(Nightmares), Mur i wieża(Wall and Tower) and Zamach (Assassination) – made over a period of several years and is based around the premise of a movement encouraging the return of Jews to Europe. You won’t often find me focusing on biographical information, but it’s relevant here: The artist, Yael Bartana, is an Isreali Jew whose grandparents died in Poland during the Holocaust.
People take pictures for all sorts of reasons. The family album is the way we build shared memories as a family group. Our appearance is recorded for documents such as passports, driving licenses and the like. Artists make portraits for a host of reasons but often the aim is in some way to understand people and how we relate to one another or to the world around us. Self-portraits can provide an opportunity to pretend, to become someone else, perhaps to suggest a narrative in the way that someone like Cindy Sherman does.
For Gillian Wearing, self-portraits are usually made from behind a mask. While many of us put on what is effectively a mask-like expression for the camera, Wearing goes for a more literal and painstaking approach.
Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Help) and (I’m desperate), 1992-3
Though Gillian Wearing doesn’t re-enact the work of a scientist to make art, arguably she does nonetheless take on another role: that of the confessor. In a number of different works, Wearing allows those she encounters – either through approaching strangers on the street or by advertising – to express their innermost thoughts in one way or another.
For the series of photographs Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say, made in 1992-3, Wearing asked people to write a sign that said something they really wanted to say and hold it up for the camera. Some of the signs comment on the wider political situation of the time – like now, Britain was in a recession – others expose the anxieties of those who made them, with the subjects’ inner thoughts often jarring with their images.
Cindy Sherman started making her Untitled Film Stills thirty-five years ago. I suppose it’s part of the nature of that project that though the images are now very familiar and though others have moved into Sherman’s territory in the meanwhile, her images don’t seem dated. In mimicking different film genres, Sherman created a body of work that has a certain level of timelessness built in. Nonetheless, thirty-five years is a long time and the Cindy Sherman who appears in the pictures in the on-going Untitled series over the past decade or so is very different from the young woman who appeared in the Untitled Film Stills. Sherman is now middle aged and the work she’s made in recent years reflects this; she is a woman of a certain age.